The Royal Italian Army, or Co-Belligerent Army, was known by several names during the the latter third of World War II, when Italy fought on the side of the Allies. A counterpoint to the Italian Social Republic, the Royal Italian Army was united under the banner of the Italian King in Exile, Victor Emmanuel III. With only 20,000 soldiers to contribute, it was outnumbered by Italian partisans by about four to one. Much of their critical shortage of manpower stemmed from the loss of leadership in Italy when the King fled the country, which occurred with bad timing; more than seven hundred thousand soldiers were apprehended by Germans on their invasion of Italy largely because the Italian military was not given clear orders as to neutrality with their former allies or armed resistance.
The Royal Italian Army was formed around a core of soldiers who escaped the mass internment of much of the Italian Army by the Germans. Though small, the Corpo Italiano di Liberazione (Italian Liberation Corps) made a good showing on the Gustav Line, despite taking many losses in the process.
Rearming and Gearing to Fight
The Royal Italian Army was pulled back from the front lines to retrain, refit, and recuperate. Most of their kit was British in make an appearance, including their uniforms. By the beginning of 1945 the army had swelled to the point that it was divided into six individual combat groups. Each one was functionally equivalent to a shorthanded division, complete with artillery, armor, support weapons, and a core force of around eight and a half thousand non-officers. In addition to the combat groups, the Co-belligerent Army also had eight auxiliary divisions intended for second line and support duties.
The Royal Italian Army served in both Operation Olive and Operation Grapeshot spanning from mid to late 1944 all the way through April of 1945. Serving mostly to secure the lines and patrol flanks, they were not heavily distinguished in any battles as the momentum of the war had already shifted. By the time they were fully armed and equipped the fighting was all but finished, and Italy liberated from their former allies Germany.
Because of the Armistice in 1943, Italy gained an unwarranted and undeserved reputation for cowardice that was portrayed frequently in sitcoms based around the era. More than a few shows (such as Hogan’s Heroes, McHale’s Navy, and Rat Patrol) characterized the Italian military with blatantly offensive and derogatory stereotypes.
A more fair assessment of the Italian military could be summed up with the Division Folgore’s sacrifice in El Alamein, where of the original five thousand less than three hundred Italian soldiers and officers survived, almost all wounded, who even then only stopped fighting because they ran out of bullets and grenades. Largely, Italy was seriously damaged and unprepared for the scale of fighting that World War II would inflict. This, coupled with most of their involvement post 1943 being preoccupied with freeing their beleaguered homeland, is significant reason why they did not gain more notoriety in the conflict.